On Usefulness

By Tim Parkinson/Flickr
By Tim Parkinson/Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

On my sixth day in England, a Tuesday, I catch the first appearance of the sun. It’s a warmish day for January, about forty-five degrees (the temperature, I will learn over the course of a semester in Sheffield, of roughly every English day). House-bound in one of the million tiny duplexes clinging to the wet city’s hillsides like barnacles, I suit up for a ramble in mud boots, impermeable layers (the sun makes no promises here), and my wonderful new backpack, which I bought my college son for Christmas and he, horrified, rejected (as though I’d attempted to pick out his underwear).

The subtly stylish pack is one of the nicest things I’ve ever owned, a really useful object, as they used to say about obedient British trains on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” television show he adored as a child. My pack has pockets on the side where I can stash my smartphone (another really useful object) and gloves and tissues and umbrella, yet still reach them when I’ve got the bag fully on. It has a front pocket that snaps, with a carabiner inside for my new house key, which I am afraid of losing. It has another front pocket that snaps, for other fears. It has thick straps and is strategically padded on the backside, so that it feels cozy, like a hug, even when full, especially when full. It is cavernous inside, with an open top that rolls neatly down if you don’t need so much space, or blossoms up so that a bouquet or baguette can poke through. I can put a whole day’s shopping inside, including wine and bananas. It has a secret zippered panel for my laptop. It is waterproof, though the outside fabric is a soft, slate gray, like a business suit, and the inside fabric is seersucker. Its elegance was apparent to me when I ordered it from a catalogue, but its usefulness continues to dawn on me, as I find it is perfectly suited to every day’s needs—reading and writing, airplane and bus and train journeys, walking by myself in a new city.

With my backpack, I feel alone and armored, invisible and capable. With my phone’s GPS, I can locate exactly where I am—a glowing blue dot on the magical map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, alive with my movements. I don’t need the phone for long, as I soon find the route through the park I am seeking, Endcliffe (what could possibly go wrong?), and I am drawn down its paths, along a powerful stream punctuated with waterfalls and reservoirs and duck ponds, drawn by the force of water and desire, along with everyone else out and profiting from the mercurial sun: dogs of every size untethered (some charging into the water, harassing the ducks), children under school age in whimsical caps and ballooning coats, afoot with their grandparents, and babies bundled up in tank-like prams (the parents no doubt in thrall to their usefulness). The river takes me down to the Endcliffe Cafe, a simple timbered shack with tables inside and out, where one must clearly stop, for tea or ice cream, or hot soup, or beans and toast, or a chip butty, whatever that is (I am afraid to ask, still shy to broadcast English words, like “bespoke” and “butty,” from my drawling American mouth).

I’ve been walking for an hour, so I can have lunch, but I don’t want to get full and slow down; I have errands to run, a backpack’s worth of necessary things to buy. And so I order tea, and when I retrieve from my pack (snap pocket) a five-pound note to pay, the long-haired girl at the till takes it curiously, turns it over and over, and says she’s never seen one like it.

“It must be very old,” she says, and the other cashiers come around and marvel at it, like children who’ve found a toad on the path.

“I’ve just arrived in England,” I explain. “Will it work?”

They all look to a pimpled boy, presumably the manager. “I’m afraid not,” he says cheerfully. “You can try taking it to the bank.”

I go back into my pack for a crisp twenty-pound bill. “How about this one?”

And they all laugh and chime, “Brilliant!” For change, the girl gives me three more five-pound notes, which look a great deal like the old one, the inscrutable Queen not having aged a bit.

“The colors are different,” she says, but I can scarcely tell.

The old fiver must be left over from the last time we were in England, when my husband and I cycled around the British Isles in 1991, before we had kids. He didn’t tell me, when he was loading my wallet, where the pounds had come from. One of his useful habits is keeping things, like spare change, and knowing, years later, where to locate them. It occurs to me that I’ve just tried to pay for my tea with currency from before these cashiers were born, which is funny (funnier than if I’d asked about chip butties), but it also makes me feel like a time traveler, which, I suppose, I am.

I have traveled out of my normal work life in Pittsburgh and into a sabbatical year abroad. I often forget what day it is, what time (England has its own time zone, separate from the rest of Europe, and sets its clocks backwards in a daylight savings scheme called, unironically, British Summer Time, shortening winter days to roughly six hours of gloom). Useless, too, my calendars; I haven’t marked one in weeks.

I take my tea to a table outside and watch the parade of souls at leisure—granddads, toddlers, new mums, some students, me, every variety of shepherd. Off-leash, the dogs are hyper-alert, not barking, noses in deep divination. The toddlers squat purposefully over feathers, pebbles, twigs. Buggies corralled, the mothers gossip, and the students smoke languorously on the grass between fits of happy talk. The reluctant sun blesses us all. A massive green playing field stretches beyond the cafe, but no one is on it, save for a small terrier, comically chasing a ball into the void.

The field, and the brilliant sky above it, create a stunned hush, like the earth’s silence from space. I remember last night’s long restlessness, my jet-lagged body in a galactic battle with British Summer Time. I remember the scattered obligations I am avoiding (a book review, the proofreading for my sister, my writing, my writing, my writing), and my mind flits from thing to do, to thing to buy, to thing to write. Sipping my tea, warm and milk-gray, I notice how shockingly good I am at doing precisely none of it. Though I am clearly wasting my time, I feel it’s somehow useful to be here. I take off my pack and place it on its own plastic chair, where I admire, again, its handsomeness. I take my first deep inhale of open English air—dewy and sweet, laced with wafts of grease (everyone else is having the butty). Witnessing the day suddenly feels like my purest and most important obligation.

Of course, this feeling comes because I am alone. My husband’s at work, teaching at the nearby university. He would rush me along, his natural pace easily doubling mine. He’s good at accomplishing things, prefers to cycle than to stroll. Together, we would create a bland and audible reading of the landscape (look, a duck) and briskly carry on. But mostly, I am remembering my kids, their dazzling childhood beauty, and I can vividly picture each of them waddling along these paths, cheeks glowing under snug hats, those years of days I was alone with them.

I have often regretted that time, an era during which I accomplished ostensibly nothing. I was a mother at home for five years, a slice out of my timeline, a bright space on my resume. It was the last time in my life, in fact, that every day sprawled out before me like this, offering its circadian pleasures: walks, talks, snacks, songs, stories, sleep. Here, at the end of the cliff, I remind myself that we harvested each day of that bounty we could, profited, dropped everything for glorious weather, ran in open fields. That’s why I am so good at this. I could have been, should have been, doing other, more useful things, too, my grasping mind told me even then—furthering my career, renovating a house, mastering Pilates—but now I see my lazy mind was right. It was there, their beauty, those long days we played down. Winter mornings, when the sun occasionally streamed through the stained glass windows of our dim old house in Pittsburgh, the kids and I used to catch it in baskets, and then pretend to eat. Strawberry, blueberry, kiwi—we devoured the sun, tasted every flavor. That’s how you save daylight. And then they were gone, gone. Those radiant days with my children will never come back, but I had them. I had them good.

The tea is entirely satisfying, and I understand why here it is considered a meal in itself, accompanied by a biscuit or nothing at all. It, too, has done its job, which is to arrest time, halt my anxious American galloping. I strap on my marvelous backpack, still light, still full of its astonishing capacity. It will carry me the rest of the day.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC has returned to Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Pin It

Preserved

By Xalion Malik/ Flickr
By Xalion Malik/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

It’s the end of October, it’s my birthday, and my husband and I are on our way to grant me some wishes, one of which I’m already realizing—to be traveling in October (every teacher’s wish). I also want to see the Atlantic from the French side, I don’t remember why, and we are four hours from the coast when we stop to have some lunch and fulfill my third desire—to eat cassoulet, in its region, in its season. A chilly mist penetrates the Languedoc today, and the French people filling the restaurant around us—we’re the only foreigners, an attendant wish—are tucked into their somber winter scarves.

I’m experiencing all of this with my interior eye half-open, a psychological squint. I’m not accustomed to such indulgences, to even having words like birthday and wishes, refer to me alone. Semi-retired from parenting, with my two kids at college, it feels strange to be on the receiving end of some of the world’s booty. For more than twenty years, I’ve been tending to other people’s dreams and desires. Teacher, mother, Santa—that’s me. I’m not sure who this woman is, here, free from so many obligations, taking the heavy menu at Restaurant Le Tirou, her life served back to her. Que desirez-vous?

Suspicious of my luck, I talk to my husband about unpleasant things, like the fact that I forgot my debit card PIN code, took my husband’s card and somehow botched the transaction, and now we’re shut out of the ATMs here and are penniless, cashwise. We have to rely upon the mercurial power of our credit card, which has a computer chip, just like European chip-and-PIN cards, but no PIN number, for an unfathomably American reason, and so, well, there’s nothing to remember with the credit card, except how to sign our own names, except that some places here can’t accept the signature and our card simply doesn’t work.

I worry aloud if this could be of those places.

Did a new card come in the mail before we left? my husband asks reasonably, and I’m forced to face one of the spaces in my memory that have recently opened up, white and empty rooms, like the ones in heaven you see in movies where no trace your life as it was actually lived survives. By now, at age fifty-two (a new number I will need some willpower to remember) I have visited these rooms before, and I know with certainty that I could walk around in here forever, feeling the walls, asking his question—Did a new card come in the mail?—and never get out.

So I pick up the wine list, also heavy. Another wish my husband is granting is driving our car on this trip, so I can—unspeakable pleasure—enjoy wine the way French people do, savoring a modest glass or two over the large unhurried lunch they call midi, but which actually starts at 12:30. I scan my choices, pretending to evaluate vintages and terroir, when in fact I’m looking at the prices and wondering how little we need to spend, really, for my solitary uneducated palate, and noticing that there are words on the menu I’ve recently looked up, like Corbière, which may or may not mean crow, and whether the fact that my French is not sticking the way it used to, or that I’ve lost consciousness of something as essential as my bank card, is a sign of dementia, until I stumble across an odd word on the Rouge list: Fitou.

Fitou. Fitou. It sounds like something you say when you can’t say the worst, like Fitou! You forgot the PIN code! but then, I remember: my friend Lynne liked a wine called Fitou; I had it at her house in Miami the year we lived there. This factoid is all I have to go on, so I order the Fitou, une demi-bouteille, and am rewarded by the waiter, who compliments me on an excellent choice.

Of course, he also compliments our choosing cassoulet for lunch, which is simply what one orders in October at midi. We are in Castlenaudary, after all, one of the trinity of cassoulet cities—Castlenaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everyone here will be having the Father.

Le Tirou (which means something I once looked up) is a cassoulet itself of haut and bas décor, lamps emerging out of teapots, houseplants from the necks of Victorian dolls, tables set with the overblown goblets Americans think of as wine glasses, but which in France indicate that you’re about to pay too much for your meal. I remind myself that today is my birthday (fifty-two, which sounds suspiciously like Fitou) and should not be wasting my desires, whatever they may be, on the check.

The wine arrives and I taste it. A French word I’ve recently relearned returns, souple—supple, gentle in the mouth. I take another easy swallow. Why have I retained the memory of this wine, not well known or expensive, which I drank just once in 1992, when I have forgotten so many more important things: how to formulate the subjunctive, the time it takes to hard-boil an egg, where the hell I think I’m going. It makes me wonder what this says about my priorities, now, our children’s futures banked at universities, our retirement years on the near horizon. Is this what will stick, the wine? Will my husband, in addition to driving, be designated to remember everything else? What is going on, here, in the newly foreign country of me?

A busboy comes by to brush our breadcrumbs with that . . . thingy, and I look away to see two donkeys pass by the dining room’s sliding-glass doors. Diners at the next table send their children out to visit. I am puzzled by the French passion for donkeys. They are installed everywhere around here, like living stuffed animals, eating and excreting and making a sound like agony finally expressed. Nobody seems to ride them, or, thankfully, eat them. Close up, they’re dirty, with flies in their eyes. There could be a reason for the donkeys I’m just not remembering, or perhaps it’s one of those things you can never understand about another culture, like our neighbors back home on Halloween, installing inflatable, light-up, fog-emitting graveyards on their lawns.

Which reminds me of when our kids were little (by which I mean Once upon a time, by which I admit the years have blurred together), when we used to bring them to France to create delightful, unDisneyfied memories together. Here in this region, in fact, we stayed in a renovated farmhouse (a gîte) and I mapped out places to visit—Roman aqueducts and forums, medieval fortresses and cathedrals—that could be both historical and fun. Which is how we once arrived at Carcassone, the Son, a few kilometers from here.

From a distance, Carcassone looked magical, its crenelated walls and turrets rising up to form a fairy tale kingdom on a hill. Inside, though, on the other side of the drawbridge, it was a roiling cauldron of tourists suffering that summer’s (I don’t remember which) record-breaking heat (the record has since been broken). Like the people expiring all over unairconditioned France, we were heatstruck in Carcassone, our feet swollen and appetites evaporated, yet we saw blazing plazas full of foreigners like us consuming souvenir bowls of steaming cassoulet. Just thinking of putting a hot spoon inside my mouth made me want to bray. We stumbled with our miserable kids along Carcossone’s authentically buckled cobblestone streets, lined with gift shops selling cassoulet keychains and cassoulet refrigerator magnets, and looked for shady places to duck into that weren’t restaurants serving cassoulet.

Which is how we came to be seated at an animatronic sideshow about the massacre of the Cathars, former religious inhabitants of Carcassone, who held, among many heretical beliefs, that Catholics could not possibly, in the thirteenth century, still be eating Christ’s body. Christ just wasn’t that big. And anyway, they asked the Pope, do you know where those wafers have been? First they were straw, that went through a donkey’s ass and fertilized a field of wheat. The Eucharist was donkey poop, according to the Cathars.

I’ll never forget watching rock’em-sock’em robot Crusaders knocking off the heads of the poor literalist Cathars, accompanied by a weird English voice-over narration that sounded like Bill Murray playing a drunk, screaming New Zealander (their jowls, their bloody jowls!). Like any real massacre, the story was complete chaos, impossible to follow, and the kids closed their sweaty eyelids against it, slumping heavily into our overheated laps.

Carcassone was one of the first reconstructed historical sites in the world, setting the path for preservation destinations like Historic Williamsburg and Historic Greenfield Village and all the candle-dipping, blacksmithing field trips my husband and I went on when we were kids. What we failed to remember, as we dragged our own kids through it, is that we ourselves never came to appreciate history, at least in the form of blacksmithing or the Revolutionary War, and even if all the power went out in France we still couldn’t summon light from a string. We’d also failed to notice, though we thought about our children constantly in those days, that they weren’t of the castle-knight-dragon-princess-obsessed variety. Look at the turrets! we screamed at them in Carcassone, in what we suddenly heard as our Bill Murray voices, The bloody turrets! They never had their eyes on the prize, it seemed, never truly saw the things we had paid extravagantly for them to see.

Like the donkey at the gîte we rented, advertised as a family-friendly, authentically renovated farm, though when we arrived at the property the stubborn âne wouldn’t come out of the barn. He doesn’t like children, our hosts explained merrily, and the feeling was mutual.

What they did like was a German police drama they caught in reruns on TV at the gîte, featuring mod, smoking detectives and a crime-solving shepherd dog named Rex. They became obsessed with “Rex,” though his barking was the only dialogue they could possibly comprehend. They wanted to stay all day in the gîte to watch “Rex,” please, torpedoing my memory-making itinerary. They liked all gîtes, in fact, all hotels, motels, B&Bs. Like birds or dogs, turning in concentrated circles, they liked scoping out a new nest: opening the drawers, sniffing the soaps, changing the channels. Like Goldilocks, they tried all the beds. With her one-button plastic kid’s camera, our daughter took a photograph of the toilet in every place we stayed, making a serious study of the variation of the species.

As is traditional, our waiter brings the cassoulet to table, in its signature earthenware pot (cassole), fired at a kiln nearby. He deftly dishes out a portion of every meat—duck confit, pork shoulder confit, house sausage, all shining dully with fat—then ladles some of the famous white (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) beans artfully over that. There’s a pause, during which I’m too shy to applaud. Instead, I take a deep inhale of the scent of my desire—a warm dish on a cold day, a hunger about to be satisfied. He leaves the cassole on the table, still bubbling and brimming.

The word confit derives from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Le Tirou does their own confiting, in a stainlessly cozy meat atelier next door (which could be, now that I think of it, what le tirou actually means), where animals are slow-cooked in lard, then put up in jars and cans. Paradoxically, it’s the fat that creates a sterile environment, an impenetrable barrier to bacteria, allowing something as delicate and ephemeral as the thigh of a duck to be kept on a shelf a long time. With a pantry full of confit and a bag of beans, you could make cassoulet any day of the week, all year long. To hell with the seasons. You could feed four hungry people with just the bowl they’ve served us.

As I imagined once upon a time when I made my wish, watching a German shepherd dig a femur out of a flower bed, cassoulet is delicious in October. Wild, savory, rich, father son and holy ghost, all the separate ingredients melt together into one texture and flavor—something like a warm, salty, ice cream sundae. Then comes the Fitou, souple, gently washing all the fats away. Fitou is made around here, too, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it pairs perfectly with cassoulet, but it surprises me that it is my wonky memory, and not the sommelier, that has made this excellent choice. I think about the hundreds or thousands of hours (the math is beyond me now) we passed together with our children–at tables, theatres, zoos, in castles, cars, beds, on couches, bicycles, airplanes, trains, funiculars, carousels, boats. I wonder what is sticking with them now, as they drift into their own history, what will be preserved in the mind’s impenetrable fat. I wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve been a good mother. It’s my fitou birthday, which I’m trying to remember. My memory stinks, a fact I’m trying to forget. I wonder if what’s scrambling the signals right now is that what I truly desire and can never have again is my children’s uncomplicated presence beside me. I tuck into the cassoulet, so my husband doesn’t see me cry.

You can eat a cassoulet almost without chewing—everything’s that tender. Soon I am seriously full—Thanksgiving-full. I excuse myself for a stroll to the toilettes, passing by vitrines displaying jars of confit you can take home to make your own cassoulet, if you so desire. You can even pick up a monstrous silver can, of a cassoulet already assembled, happy pig skipping across the label, offered by a formally dressed Teddy bear. It makes me a little sick, actually, thinking about everything I’ve just swallowed and may never properly digest. It occurs to me it really doesn’t take that much faith to believe in a meal that lasts forever.

Before he left for college, our son filched some pictures from our albums to paste into a scrapbook to leave behind for his sister. Though touched by his sentiment, I was furious that he’d raided the family photos without asking. Then I saw the book he made, intended only for her, captioning seemingly random photographs (not the ones I would have missed) with inside jokes. The book is called LMAO (Laugh My Ass Off, I had to look it up), which is exactly what our daughter did when she read her little book.

She shared it around, but no one else, including me, could see what was so funny. Like “Rex,” their childhood was a story they’d been telling to themselves all along. In LMAO, my husband and I are pretty minor characters, smiling like cartoon pigs on the sidelines, and I had to consider that while we were earnestly plotting their futures, arranging the scenery (fortresses, spaceships, windmills, caves) to be as inspirational and educational and pleasant as possible, they were naturally oblivious, laughing their asses off, following their own desires.

In LMAO, there’s just one photo from our Carcassonne trip. Remember, my son wrote to his sister, under a picture of the two of them, adorably eight and nine, or seven and eight, standing on the reclaimed wooden fence next to the stone barn where the donkey was brooding, those amazing pillows?

The credit card works, and my husband excuses himself to walk off his cassoulet, or maybe the shock of the bill, while I finish, yes, the whole half-bottle of wine. With my sidelong eye I watch him lope away, slender back I still have a crush on. It really is just the two of us now, and that’s more than a girl could wish for on her birthday. I pick up his pen to write a note on my hand: Remember. To thank him for the lovely lunch. To apologize again for the card thingy. And to tell him about the chef in his toque, white and wide as a sail boat, navigating among the groaning diners towards me. He asks, with a shyly satisfied smile, if the cassoulet has pleased me. I take his hand, and my fingers disappear into the largest palm I’ve ever held, a deep bed of warm, meaty flesh, softer than the softest pillow. I am, oui, pleased. This I will remember.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is a teacher and writer currently on sabbatical in France, where she is watching, with sympathy and recognition, the traumatization of a culture. Winner of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, for her essays and poetry, she makes her home in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Carlow University. A new chapbook of her poems, House of Women, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Comma Momma

comma
By Leo Reynolds/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

1. Use a comma to set off introductory elements.

After over a month away, my college freshman sends me an email containing, in its entirety, her opening paragraph for an essay (probably due in a couple of hours). No need to comment; she wants me to check the commas. It is our only inside joke; she doesn’t “get” commas. More precisely, she gets that commas are the only necessary punctuation, allowing the harried, headlong writer to separate ideas, go to the bathroom, dramatically pause, enumerate, whatever—commas are like school paste, hastily completing one ring before the next in the brilliant paper chain of her thinking.

She is brilliant, let me not fail to mention, attending a, cough, elite university. She’s also sensible and diligent, witty, humane. How terrible is it to have one grammatical fault?

Not very. But I know what you’re thinking, you, parent-who-is-not-me. You’re thinking she should be correcting her own comma errors. You’re thinking, how terrible to have only one funny intimacy between you and your daughter, one (count it) joke, after eighteen years of positive, thoughtful, healthy, creative, stable, mindful, whatever, parenting? How lame to get one lousy email in a month?

You tell me, chuckling momma. And I know you will, momentarily. I became a mother just in time for the zeitgeist of self-conscious parenting—we stared, compared, wrote books (guilty!), blogged, bragged. Currently, we buzzfeed our anxieties across the wired universe—Are You Enabling Your Adult Child? Is 25 the New 18? 10 Signs You’re a Helicopter Parent. Or Are You a . . . wait, what’s the opposite of a helicopter?

Tricycle? Dirt bike? Wheelchair? Somewhere on the primitive terrestrial level of emotional locomotion is where my daughter and I bust our moves. My cousin and her daughter exchanged 212 texts and seven phone calls in her first week at college—in this digital parenting age, there are so many new ways to keep score—but that’s not how we roll. We don’t talk, much, my daughter and me. We don’t text. A grammatical point is the center of our intimate universe. So boo me.

Boo her, too, charging ahead, comma-tose, in her spectacular, mother-free life. I envy her, let me put that out there. I’d like to go back to college, belly-up to the buffet table of knowledge, and feast. I’d like to peek out from behind my shiny hair at the smart and sultry guys peeking back.

But that’s a feeling I like to keep separate from missing her. She’d like that, too, and if we had one other joke, she and I, that’d probably be it. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?

Do I miss her? Yes, no. No, yes.

2. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things).

Like you, attached parent, I’ve spent the better part of two decades observing this beautiful human. I watched while she composed her tiny arguments with me. At two, holding my gaze, she walked backwards with the juice she was not allowed to take out of the kitchen, already seeking an escape hatch from the Mothership. First sentences included “You’re not the boss of me,” and “I want my privacy, please.”

She was tough, contained, stubborn, true, quick, observant, thorough—from the very start of life. Unfoolable, she refused all bottles and pacifiers, forcing me to breastfeed until she finally got a cup with her own damned name on it.

From the moment she could write, she liked to bring her universe to order by making lists: Jews We Know; Christians We Know; Ask Mom About. One of her lists, “Rules,” composed in crayon during a particularly disastrous play date, virally migrated to copier rooms across America after I taped them to my office door at work:

Rosalie’s Rules

  1. No telling secrets!!!!!
  2. No whining.
  3. No phisical contact.
  4. No trowing shoes.
  5. Listen to grownups.
  6. Don’t waist electrisedy.
  7. Have fun !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  8. Be nice.
  9. Be polite unless your being funny!
  10. Always follow theese rules!

My brother-in-law used to begin corporate staff meetings by handing out Rosalie’s Rules. In fact, all of us who took this list to work understood that following Rosalie’s Top Three Rules—No telling secrets. No whining. No physical contact—would pretty much eliminate conflict. And it was sobering to realize that this insight came from a six-year-old.

My six-year-old. I remember her early bodies. Fine white hair standing straight as wheat on her head. Her fat square foot in my palm. The berry birthmark on the side of her nose, fainter each year. Her delicate frame in a white tee-shirt, pink rosebud on the collar. I was watching, admiring, evaluating—every minute, all the time—like the rest of my friends did with their kids. And for a time, in clear violation of Rule #3, I’d catch her up just to dance with me; she’d kiss me as many times as she could count; I’d knead the warm dough of her after a bath, when we played “Make me a pizza!”

At thirteen, however, she reverted to Rule #3, stopped returning hugs and accepting kisses, pulled up the drawbridge of herself and peered down at me from a high parapet. She was polite (Rule #9), but not funny. I couldn’t get a laugh out of her to save my soul (which sorely needed to hear her laugh). It was a long and difficult period, five years of her disciplined, disapproving distance—my girl backing away, still holding my gaze.

In the spirit of Rule #1, I should say that before she was born I feared having a girl, and this is precisely why: this regard. I know, because I was a girl who once regarded her mother from the same high place—with love, but without mercy. I needed my mother in very specific ways (a pumpkin pie, a prom dress, a crisply ironed shirt), but I couldn’t, for a long time, talk to her. Like Rosalie, I was never one of those girls who told their mothers everything. Yet I couldn’t help feeling, over the years of my daughter’s childhood, that I should become one of those mothers.

I simply didn’t know how. Shamed, I listened hard while other mothers filled me in on juicy news my daughter never reported—classroom antics, crackpot teachers, drama-club drama, teen romances, breakdowns, and bad behavior. I accepted their pity—their daughters dished, while I got my updates from the school website—and internalized their unspoken question: Doesn’t she know her own daughter?

In the newly empty house, her wee face on a stray refrigerator magnet can slay me.

3. Use a comma + a conjunction to connect two independent clauses.

So I’ve been getting out more, and today took a walk when no one else thought of it. I had the park to myself, sky quietly blue and the trees starting to riot. A shift in season announced itself in my lungs. As I got into rhythm, I felt my energy rise up to my demand: heart delivering, muscles stretching, bones holding everything aloft. A shift in me, a space in me, opened up. Here I am, I thought: moving, alone, separate.

It was a concrete experience, nothing mystical about it. I’ll turn fifty in a few days. I’ve been a woman for thirty-eight years, a wife for twenty-eight, a mother for twenty. My body, me as object in space, has been caressed, ogled, stretched, shoved, squeezed, sized up, sucked, fucked, fondled, leaned on, burdened, stuffed, starved, examined, cut, drained, cleaned, sullied. There have been many hands upon me, hands I love and want to return to. Hands I slapped back (or should have). But this body, and the mind inhabiting it, has been returned to me, whole, completely capable of its animal and spiritual work: propulsion, going on.

And along with the impatient leaves, this other, thrilling idea came down: No one is watching. I have my privacy, thank you.

Like most empty nesters and the officially middle-aged, I certainly have regrets. But one of them is wishing for the wrong things. I wished for childhood to be perfect for my kids, not one molecule damaged or opportunity ignored. I wished to be perfect myself—more ambitious, more confident, less judgmental. I wished my daughter and I were closer. But I didn’t wish for this—for my sole self returning after a long journey through other lives, other bodies, other selves.

Of course, I wished my kid would get into her dream school, which, in fact, she did. At the freshman convocation, I squinted from the bleachers to pick out the pony tail that belonged to me—my beloved yellow head bobbing in the sea of promise. But the chaplain who delivered the invocation caught me in the act. “These are your children,” he said to the flock of proud parents, who, let’s be honest, felt we, too, had arrived. “But they don’t belong to you. They belong to themselves.”

My daughter has been telling me this very thing, in various ways, her entire life. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, and I suspect that in prior generations everybody knew that, not just six-year-olds. Gathering a new space around her (albeit with a roommate I don’t know much about), I think my daughter has been returned to her self, too, untethered, no one looking over her shoulder, however lovingly. That’s a heady feeling, I know. In the compound sentence of our lives, we’ve both arrived at a comma. Something has gone; something is coming, but we’re going to stop here a moment and, privately, catch our breath.

Don’t judge us, oracles of parenting, friendly rivals I run into at the coffee shop who ask how Rosalie is doing at school. (I don’t know; fine, I guess.) We’ve taken a break from judgment and are composing ourselves for our futures. No secrets. No whining. No throwing shoes.

And in this new, quiet space I hear a faint voice calling from the distance. I love you, now, will you please, shut up and tell me, where the commas go?

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is the editor, with Lynne Barrett, of Birth: A Literary Companion . She teaches in the Literary Arts department of Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School and in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Carlow University.